Everybody hates their content management system

Paul Boag

We need to spend the same time and attention on our internal systems as we do on our external facing websites. Just look at your content management system.

I was sitting in a board room trying to discuss digital transformation. Unfortunately one person just wanted to talk about was how terrible their content management system was.

How come I can download an app onto my mobile and instantly know how to use it, yet have to go on a training course to use our CMS? Shouldn’t a content management system be intuitive?

He was right of course. They had 1200 people across the organisation, the majority of whom were struggling to use the CMS. All that frustration! All those wasted hours!

He wanted the organisation to switch content management systems. I pointed out that most had the same problem and that this was treating the symptom and not the underlying issue.

I have worked with many content management systems over the years and in every case people complained about them. Are they all terrible? Or is something else going on?

I believe that the problem lies in how content management systems are sold and then used within organisations.

Content management systems are mis-sold

This may date me, but I remember when content management systems arrived on the scene. Many saw them as the silver bullet for all their content issues. There was a perception that content management systems would allow anybody to update the website. This would do away with the need to expand the web team to support increased interest in digital.

This was and is a perception encouraged by content management system vendors. They sold their systems on the basis that anybody can now publish to the website.

In truth things are not that straightforward.

For a start most content management systems are not fit for that purpose. That is because content management system vendors overestimate the skills of the average user. The majority of content management systems are not easy to use. They contain far more functionality and complexity than the average user needs.

Furthermore, with this distributed model, most CMS users only update the website occasionally. This means they are not becoming familiar with how these systems work and forget any training they have received.

There is also an assumption that allowing large numbers of people to update the website is a good thing. I am coming to the conclusion this is not in fact the case.

Large number of editors has a dramatic impact on quality, consistency and relevance. Content contributors are not experts at writing for the web and rarely have the time to keep that content up-to-date. Even if they have the skills and time, without editorial control their will be no consistent tone of voice across the site.

You maybe left wondering what the role of a content management system should be. If they are too complex for the average user and too many users undermines quality, why have a CMS at all?

The truth is they do have a place, we just need to adapt our thinking about their use.

Changing our approach to content management systems

Content management systems are a tool for enabling digital professionals to manage online content. They are not for the ‘masses’. These are powerful, complex systems that allow a high degree of control. More control and functionality than should be in the hands of non-specialists. Admittedly, in an organisation with a high degree of digital expertise this might not be the case. But as a general principle I believe it stands.

Introduce a central editorial team

What organisations need is a central team that works with business specialists to write effective web copy. This team then posts content online using a CMS. You need that central team to ensure quality and to also maintain existing content. This includes removing content that is no longer relevant.

This will create a bottleneck in content production, but I would argue that is a good thing. Content management systems encourage anybody to put content online. This makes it harder for users to find the information they want. Too many of our sites are full of content ‘that somebody might find useful’ rather than focusing on specific use cases.

This is a lesson being learnt by the European Commission. As part of their digital transformation project they have removed 90% of their content. Content that proliferated because of wide spread access to the CMS.

There are of course exceptions. Updating staff profiles is something better done by the staff themselves. Updating content such as news or job postings also sit better with those who produce the content. But that does not mean these users need access to the full blown content management system.

Even with limited permissions, many users find content management systems far from intuitive. Training is not an option because people forget, forcing refresher courses. This ends up being expensive and time consuming.

Build custom interfaces for common tasks

Instead we should be designing custom interfaces for the content management system. Interfaces tailored to the workflow users are trying to complete. In other words instead of having a single interface for the CMS, there should be different ones for key tasks. Tasks such as updating profiles or adding news stories. The digital team would continue to use the normal CMS. The customised interfaces would be for employees trying to complete a small group of specific tasks.

The huge advantage this brings is that we can tailor these interfaces to the way people already work. We will not need the user to adapt to the technology.

Most enterprise level content management systems enable this kind of customisation. Unfortunately, organisations are unwilling to pay for it. This makes little sense.

The cost of CMS training and the hours wasted struggling with the CMS would cover the price of designing a tailored interface. In fact this approach would likely provide a return on investment in productivity savings.

Custom interfaces for specific workflows and a central team dedicated to ensuring quality will transform your CMS. It will go from a hated necessity to the powerhouse that drives your website.